To lock up a spot in the NCAA Tournament and avoid sweating out its fate on Selection Sunday, Florida State must win a game away from home.
Florida State (20-9, 10-4 ACC) visits NC State (15-14, 5-9) on Sunday night in what is the final regular season game on the ACC schedule before returning to the state of North Carolina for next week's ACC Tournament in Greensboro. Regardless of the outcome, the Seminoles will be the No. 3 seed in Greensboro and receive a first-round bye thanks to Clemson's 69-60 win over Virginia Tech on Saturday.
FSU is widely considered a near lock for the NCAA Tournament (most projections have the Seminoles as a No. 9 or No. 10 seed) and a win over the Wolfpack would end any doubt as to whether or not they belong in field, which is expanding from 65 to 68 teams this year.
That won't be a problem if the Seminoles play like they did in their last game. If not for a game-winning 3-pointer from Harrison Barnes with 3.1 seconds left, the 'Noles would have beaten one of the nation's hottest teams. Instead, North Carolina escaped with a 72-70 win in Tallahassee for its 11th victory over its last 12 games (UNC made it 12 of 13 on Saturday crushing No. 4 Duke 81-67).
"This is a must win for us," said FSU big man Bernard James of facing N.C. State. "We are definitely going to take some energy and focus we had from this last game and apply it to them. We know we can beat them. We just to got to play the way we did (against UNC) and make sure it doesn't come down to one final play and we have to make our free throws."
FSU put together its best offensive performance of the season in its 84-71 win over N.C. State at home back on January 15th. All five starters scored in double figures, including James, who went a perfect 8-of-8 from the floor and scored 16 points. The Seminoles shot 54.5 percent from the floor (30 of 55) and 82.6 percent from the free throw line (19 of 23).
Against UNC, FSU shot 53.8 percent from the free throw line (7 of 13). James (2 of 5) had three of those misses.
Still, FSU had plenty to be proud of in the narrow loss, namely a particularly well-rounded performance. All 10 players who saw action scored and the bench combined for 27 points. They climbed back from being seven points down in the final four minutes with a 10-2 run that saw three different players score and put the Seminoles up by one point.
Moreover, FSU put a scare into an elite team without star forward Chris Singleton, who will miss his fifth straight game with a fractured foot, but could be back in time for the ACC Tournament.
"We can play with the best teams in the nation," James said. "We're really starting to mesh. None of the players were doing their own thing (against UNC). We're starting to get it together. I guess it's the perfect time for it with the tournament time coming up. This is when we need to really start clicking."
NC State is one of the most disappointing teams in the nation. With the addition of a highly-touted recruiting class, the Wolfpack were picked to finish fourth in the ACC in the conference preseason poll. But, NC State is currently 10th in the league standings and head coach, Sidney Lowe, is widely considered to be on his way out at season's end.
Still, the Wolfpack are formidable at home, having won three of their last five in Raleigh, including a 69-61 triumph over a Clemson team that has a shot at an NCAA Tournament bid.
The Wolfpack also beat Florida State in both their meetings last season, including in Tallahassee and in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals with Scott Wood making 13 three-pointers in those two games. In the first meeting between FSU and NC State this year, Wood was limited to 3 three-pointers and was a non-factor.
NC State boasts one of the ACC's best big men duo in senior Tracy Smith (14.4 ppg, 5.6 rpg) and freshman C.J. Leslie (11.7 ppg, 7.2 rpg). Smith, who could be playing in his final home game, has scored in double figures in 17 of the 19 games he has played in (missed 10 with a knee injury).
"We can't have a pity party," FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said . "We have one more game left on the road and it's very important to our basketball team. You look around college basketball and you see emotional highs and lows. The players can't allow themselves to get caught up in that."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
Florida State is coming off its best performance of the season and dominated NC State in the first meeting. But, you wonder if there will be an emotional letdown after suffering such a heartbreaking loss to North Carolina on Wednesday. The Seminoles won't have the benefit of a near sold-out crowd rooting them on this time and they haven't been a good road team. NC State hasn't either, but it has been respectable on its home court. Because the game is in Raleigh we'll say the Wolfpack will squeak by with a 68-65 win.
WHO'S HOT FOR THE SEMINOLES:
FSU's outside shooting. In its last four games without Singleton, FSU has shot 38.6 percent from 3-point range. The 'Noles shot 32.9 percent in their 25 games with Singleton … James is shooting 64.1 percent from the floor, which would rank as the second-highest figure in school history … Reserve guard Luke Loucks has only committed three turnovers in his last 76 minutes of action (covers last five games).
WHO'S HOT FOR THE WOLFPACK:
Senior point guard Javier Gonzalez is coming off a season-high 16-point outing off the bench in N.C. State's loss to Virginia on Tuesday … Senior post Tracy Smith is shooting 78.5 percent from the floor (11 of 14) in his last two games … Freshman point guard Ryan Harrow leads the ACC in free throw percentage at 88.0 percent (66 of 75).
With a win, Florida State would have 11 ACC wins in a single season for the first time since winning 12 in 1992-93 (that team reached the Elite Eight).
FSU is looking for its first regular-season sweep of N.C. State since 1998.